Remember your first efforts in reading judicial opinions. You read the assigned cases, note that there were two parties involved in a dispute, that legal arguments were presented, and a judge decided that one party has won and another lost. But you may have also learned, perhaps to your dismay, that your reading of the cases was unsatisfactory. Perhaps you were told that your reading was superficial and that you missed many important aspects of the case. What you set out to do as a student is to learn again how to read and focus your attention on this new kind of text. Students who do this new kind of reading well will succeed in law school.
In Lawyers and Film, you're asked to read still a different kind of text—a film. You may find that reading films, like reading judicial opinions, takes some readjustment.
The most basic question you confront In Lawyers and Film is this: How am I to read this film? This question implicates still another: What kind of reader of lawyer films can I be?
My strategies for reading and teaching lawyer films have been both simple and straight-forward, although they provide no magic wand that can be waved at the film to produce something we can call meaning. Since there is no magic wand, nothing that will prove once and all that films are anything more than entertainment, I propose that we honestly confront the obstacles law-trained film viewers are likely to encounter, and that we find a way, to put the lawyer films we watch to use. To do this, I propose that we:
Here are three comments that broaden the ideas I present here:
A Film is an Education. If you want to do something useful with a film, you might ask: What kind of education does this film make possible? What kind of knowledge of lawyers, the legal profession, and the world does the film offer? How does the film teach? Where does the film fit with what you know about yourself? How does this film help you understand the assumptions you've made about the legal profession and your place in it? How do fictional lawyers help us understand the relationship between our professional and personal lives? What do lawyers in film teach us about law?
A pedagogical approach to lawyer films has us asking whether these films might alter and expand our present “sphere of legal life.” I adopt the phrase, “sphere of legal life” from Austin Sarat’s observation that, “[i]n this age of the world as a ‘picture,’ the proliferation of law in film, on television, and in mass market publications, has altered and expanded the sphere of legal life.” [Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice: “Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul L. Rev. 425, 429 (2000)]
Basically, I think it now rather obvious that:
A Film Tells a Story. You've been listening to stories, telling stories, and reading stories from the time you were a child. You must know a great deal about stories and how they work, how some become revered as classics. A film is, first and foremost, a story. If you know about stories and how they work, you can put that knowledge to work in your reading of lawyer films.
| tell me a story |
I have searched widely in the scholarly work on film theory, film criticism, and film studies for ways of working with lawyer films. The most relevant and useful source that I have found is the work of playwrights, screenwriters, and screenwriting consultants. Screenwriting people know something about stories and about how stories work. My recommendation: Read the literature on screenwriting.
| screenwriting |
Film Drama Emerges From Conflict. What kind of conflict is presented in the film? How do the film's characters represent the conflict? How is the conflict resolved?
There are some rather basic ways in which conflict is represented in film. For example, conflict between a protagonist and an enemy or antagonist. Protagonist and antagonist are characters in the film; they are also a representation and personification of the great opposites:
order & disorder
progress & status quo
love & hate
modern & primitive
masculine & feminine
science & religion
Robert Scholes, in Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (Yale University Press, 1985) argues that "binary oppositions . . . organize the flow of value and power. . . ."  "[L]aying bare of basic oppositions" is, according to Scholes, "becoming a basic part of the critic's repertory. . . ."  "In getting from the said and read to the unsaid and interpreted . . . [t]he first things to look for are repetitions and oppositions that emerge at the obvious or manifest level of the text." [ 32]
We can, with some effort, "try to uncover the implications of the opposition by exploring all the relationships of similarity and difference that link the story's" oppositions.  We
If drama and life are shaped by the struggle to understand and resolve oppositional forces, you may find it instructive to map the oppositions you find in the films. Both screen writers and narrative theorists argue that stories, drama in particular, are driven by conflict, and it is this conflict that must be addressed by the story's protagonist.
Caring for and Identification with the Characters in the Film. Entertained by plot, you are educated by the film's characters. What brings you to care what happens to a character in the film? How is this sense of caring evoked? What happens when you watch a film and realize you just don't care about any of its characters?
There is something odd, peculiar and wonderful about the knowledge we come to possess about film characters. We know what the character looks like, often enough where she lives, what kind of furniture she has in her bedroom, what kind of car she drives, her marital and family situation, where she works, who she works with, what kind of work she does, how she is regarded by her coworkers, her relationship with her boss, how the boss is regarded by the workers, and the various tensions and conflicts in her work. We learn enough about film characters to become involved in their lives. We begin to care about the film's characters. We want things to turn out well for a particular character. We want a character to get what he or she wants or needs or desires. We want this for the character because of what we have learned about them and because we have learned to care. We want the characters with whom we identify to vanquish their foes and slay the demons that pursue them.
Film Lawyers and Their Heroic Quest. What kind of heroes do we find in lawyer films?
Prepare to be Unsettled. What films do, and sometimes do so powerfully well, is satisfy our need for a compelling story. They present and then immerse us in a narrative.
The bottom-line: "[F]ilm forces us to live in a most uncomfortable sort of world . . . ." [Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of film to Our Idea of History 236 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)]
The Round-Trip Ticket. Films present finely crafted,
composed, fictional worlds to which we can retreat, and which allow
us to explore, from a safe distance, the real world dilemmas and dramas
in which we find our own lives, and our own world, enmeshed. A film
viewer’s journey is a round-trip ticket from the real world to film world and then a return.
It's All About Meaning. Rennard Strickland, a longstanding student of film, argues that: “Films can and do ask important questions.” [Rennard Strickland, “The Hollywood Mouthpiece: An Illustrated Journey Through the Courtrooms and Back-Alleys of Screen Justice,” in The Lawyer and Popular Culture, id., 49-59, at 54]
And what are these important questions, and how do lawyer films address them?
This idea that the film means something, and that it's the work of the student/critic to get at this meaning, is basically and ultimately related to the varied reasons that we teach film.
Reinventing Ourselves as Readers. We must invent ourselves as readers and student critics of lawyer films. To do so, we begin with a note of humility. David Slavitt puts the point most directly:
There's a sweet note of humility in the reminder that we are still trying to figure out what it means to be a lawyer. The evidence of that humility is that we have turned to films for still another perspective on what it means to be a lawyer.
Look to the Film Itself for Clues on How It Can be Read. Learn to make use of what is in the film: memorable scenes, crisp/provocative dialogue, recurring symbols, a long monologue. The point to remember is that "texts do, to some extent, give directions for their own decoding." [Peter J. Rabinowitz, Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation 37 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987)]
To read and work with a film carefully and thoughtfully requires that you take notes when you watch the films, or, in the alternative, view the film a second time. Try to capture as many snippets of dialogue as you can. You will find these fragments of dialogue extremely helpful when you begin to write about the films.
Look for Symbols. Films are full of symbols. Learn to make use of them.
Read Films Like Chapters of a Book. Remember that you are watching an entire series of films. What kind of world do you enter with the first film you watch in the course? How does the progression of films in the series work? In what sense can each film in the course be viewed as chapters in a larger text? What common storylines, plots, motifs, character types, symbols, myths do you find emerging in the films? [Film Genre] When you finally watch all the films in the course and consider them as a whole, what can you say about them?
Listen to the Classroom Dialogue. We do far more
rigorous work in the classroom when we discuss films than one might imagine.
We may devise, in our work together, ways of talking about, interpreting,
and understanding films that provide themes you can explore in your writing
for the course.
N1. David Bordwell, a film studies scholar whose work I admire, notes in his masterful book Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989) that he does not favor the use of the term "reading" as a synonym for inferences about meaning.
N2. "No two viewers of these films will see exactly the same film; the mind imposes its own meanings and selects and constructs its own story from the flow of visual imagery and linguistic information. Thus we often end up interpreting different narratives. The differences are sometimes quite astonishing. Such discrepancies often go unrecognized but in a seminar engaged in a close textual reading they can yield invaluable insights." [Teaching Film at Harvard Law School -- Alan A. Stone, Harvard Law School] [Stone goes on to note that "We sometimes go beyond agreeing to disagree and reach the interesting question: what is the coherent textual basis of our differing understandings of the facts. This probing of one's personal fact finding process and the effort to convince others of one's understanding seems to me one of the quintessential tasks of people who think seriously about law and Law."]
N3. One of the founders of popular culture studies argues that it is inevitable that popular culture has a significant meaning. Ray B. Browne puts the point this way:
Browne’s point, overstated as one might expect of a founder of popular culture studies suggests in its more sober assessment a convention of virtually all legal film critics: Popular culture, including films, are sufficiently important that they deserve study. Austin Sarat notes that, “Today, law lives in images that saturate our culture and have a power all their own. Mass mediated images are as powerful, pervasive, and important . . . .” [Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice: “Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul L. Rev. 425, 450 (2000)]
N4. We don’t expect to find humility in
the study of law. We know that: "Conventionally in jurisprudential
and political theory, law has been taken for granted as a ‘given’—we
assume that we know what it is and where to find it, and also what it
does. We know, further, in this particular mythology what its objects
and subjects are and what they look like . . . .” [Alan
Hunt, The Role of Law in the Civilizing Process and the Reform of Popular
Culture, 10 Can. J.L. & Soc. 5, 10 (1995)] This conventional,
settled view of law, is displaced by legal films. “[F]ilm, as a
medium, always highlights the contingencies of our legal and social conditions.”
[Austin Sarat, Exploring the Hidden Domains of Civil Justice:
“Naming, Blaming, and Claiming” in Popular Culture, 50 DePaul
L. Rev. 425, 429 (2000)] Film “attunes us to the ‘might-have-beens’
that have shaped our worlds, as well as the ‘might-bes’ against
which our worlds can be judged and toward which they might be pointed.
In so doing, film images contribute to both greater analytic clarity and
political sensibility in our treatments of law, whether they are in the
hidden domains of civil justice or elsewhere.” [Id.
at 430] I might note that Sarat’s “reading” of
the Atom Egoyan film, "The Sweet Hereafter," is an exemplar
of the kind of pedagogical-focused film criticism I have advanced here.
[ “The Sweet Hereafter addresses a complex array
of fears, desires, needs, and demands in our culture’s imagining
of law and litigation. The film shows the appeal as well as the distasteful
quality of litigation, the desires that move some toward the law and others
away from law. The film illustrates the fantasies of law’s remedial
power that sit alongside our fears of the power that law exerts. ”
Id. at 431.]
N5. What we want of a study of law and popular culture, at its best, is “the merging of disciplinary boundaries . . . .” [Cassandra Sharp, The “Extreme Makeover” Effect of Law School: Students Being Transformed by Stories, 12 Tex. Wesleyan L. Rev. 233 (2005)(relating popular culture to identify formation)]
One reason for this “merging of disciplinary boundaries” lies in the fact that, “the many products and images that comprise popular culture are infinitely fertile in suggestions and contain both a manifest existence and a latent, but nonetheless potent symbolic state.” [Jarret S. Lovell, Crime and Popular Culture in the Classroom: Approaches and Resources for Interrogating the Obvious, 12 J. Crim. Just. Educ. 229 (2001)]
Robert Rosenstone, an historian, observes in his book on the place of films in the teaching of history that: “With film the cat of our meaning cannot be placed back into the bag of discipline. If we are honest we can never again deny the arbitrary nature of that discipline. And thus of the meanings we insist it must carry.” [Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History 236 (Harvard University Press, 1995)(Rosenstone is, of course, talking about history as a discipline here, but he could, as well, be talking about law.)]
N6. We don’t, perhaps, need to be reminded that lawyer films, whatever educational value they may have, were developed and produced as entertainment. One commentator notes that, “[t]he motion picture has become the most influential and compelling form of mass entertainment ever created.” [John Marini, Western Justice: John Ford and Sam Peckinpah on the Defense of the Heroic, 6 Nexus: J. of Opinion 57 (Spring, 2001)] This observation is most certainly true if we include television within the definition of “motion picture.” We need not shy away from the further realization that, “cinema can be the most vulgar, escapist medium,” and that even trashy films may provide meaningful pleasure. [The quote is from Yvette Biró, Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind of the Cinema vii (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982)(Imre Goldstein trans.). On the pleasures and value of trashy movies, see Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” in Phillip Lopate (ed.), American Movie Critics An Anthology From the Silents Until Now 337-367 (New York: Library of America, 2006); J. Hoberman, “Bad Movies,” in id. at 517-528.]
N7. In working our way through the paradox of films–entertainment as art, art as entertainment—we might consider Robert Warshaw’s observations:
N8. Films rely upon the power of image and narrative to make life in the film more compelling, while helping us to appreciate both the ordinariness of day-to-day life and our efforts to transcend it. “Movies are very powerful and can, through the use of provocative images, explore controversial themes and evoke passions that can affect even the most tightly closed minds.” [Melvin Gutterman, “Failure to Communicate” The Reel Prison Experience, 55 SMU L. Rev. 1 (2002)]
Film stories, like the stories we find in literature, “matter, and matter deeply,” argues Frank McConnell, “because they are the best way to save our lives.” [Frank McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)] One way that films may help us save our lives, is that we see in films, “ways of living and judging.” [Richard K. Sherwin, Nomos and Cinema, 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1519, 1541 (2001)] I assume that Sherwin means that lawyers must figure out how to live, most especially, how to live as lawyers. In part, our “way of living” follows from the way we judge the practices of others, indeed, the insight we have into our own practices.
N9. "Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities—work, play, eating, exercise—for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep—and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories?” [Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting 11 (New York: ReganBooks, 1997)
N10. We must fundamentally rethink what it means to be a reader of film as we try to write about the film. Maybe we need to admit that being a film critic requires everything we’ve got. David Kennedy, in a different context, notes: “I try to remember to think of myself as coming to the law with everything I’ve got, which is some knowledge of a variety of different texts from different places. My job is to mobilize them in a project.” Pauline Kael, in a 1963 essay, argued that our greatest critics—she names André Bazin and James Agee—“may have something to do with their using their full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas.” [David Kennedy, “Critical Legal Theory” (a conversation), in Susan Tiefenbrun (ed.), Law and the Arts 130-131, at 130 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999); Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” in David Denby (ed.), Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present 146-168, at 148 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977)]
Reading Film :: Web Resources
Reading a film is simply a way of thinking about the film, about what it might mean, and about how we might use the film as part of our education as lawyers.
Bordwell's work is theoretical in nature but it is theory that can be put to use. My recommendation for students in Lawyers and Film from the various Bordwell books on film is Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989). For a review of the themes and arguments in Making Meaning, see Bordwell's Film Interpretation Revisited. Bordwell notes that throughout his career as a film scholar he has been interested in how viewers "make sense" of films and "how they try to ascribe broader significance to the films that they see." Bordwell on Bordwell. [For an introduction, to Bordwell's view of how we "make sense" of films, see Cognition and Comprehension: Viewing and Forgetting in Mildred Pierce.]
Bordwell has noted that "Film criticism lies at the centre of nearly all intellectual discourse about the cinema, and if we take criticism to be an effort to know particular moves more intimately, it probably deserves its prime place." [For a review of Bordwell's Making Meaning (1989), see Noel King, Critical Occasions: David Bordwell's Making Meaning and the Institution of Film Criticism]